"Art is in the eye of the beholder."
It's remarkable the extent to which enthusiasm is contagious, especially within a closely-knit network of blogs, message boards and mailing lists – populated with adherents of the grandest game in the world. As I scribble this, Curt Evans is putting the final touches to his manuscript with which the erudite gladiator will enter the intellectual arena to defend the often, and unjustly, undervalued humdrum writers. This rallying cry for an upcoming battle impelled Patrick to unsheathe his sword in defense of John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts, Henry Wade and R. Austin Freeman, which, in turn, provoked me into action and pulled a copy of Freeman's The Stoneware Monkey (1939) from my cluttered bookshelves.
One of the genre's most well-known pricks, Julian "Bloody" Symons, condemned Freeman as a penman of negligible talents, whose stories are the figurative equivalent of chewing on dry straw, but after finishing The Stoneware Monkey I have to ask if he actually bothered to read his work in-depth before passing judgment – since this book contained both wittily written sections as well as a fairly realistic approach to the detective story. But, of course, realism in Symons'
book has nothing at all to do with scientific accuracy, or any such nonsense, but with whether or not a detective has a sex life. I had written here an example of how Freeman could've earned the demagogue's nodding approval, but deleted it since nobody wants to be stuck with a mental image of an amorously Dr. Thorndyke sneaking into the city morgue and smothering the cadavers with kisses. Oh, wait...
The first portion of the book is narrated by Dr. James Oldfield, one of Dr. John Thorndyke's former pupils, who relates the story of his involvement in two, seemingly, unconnected crimes – which cumulated in a third. The ruinous seedlings of the case were planted in a countryside village, where Oldfield was looking after a small practice of a vacationing medico, when, after returning from a late house call, he hears the alarm of a police whistle – and promptly spots a mortally injured police constable who was slugged with his own truncheon. There's no question that the perpetrator was the same person who, mere minutes before, swiped a parcel of diamonds from the home of a local merchant and the constable was in pursuit of the pilferer. But despite an incriminating thumbprint, left on the murder weapon, no viable suspects turned up to secure a match – and the case went unsolved.
|Dr. John Thorndyke|
The purloining of the diamonds and subsequent murder of the police constable only take up the first thirty pages of the book, before receding into the background, after which the story picks up again in the city where Dr. Oldfield has set-up a new medical practice. One of his first patients is Peter Gannet, a pottery maker who suffers from incurable abdominal pains, but a consult with his ex-mentor, the famous medico-legal forensic investigator, results in diagnosis of arsenic poisoning – and together they foil the plans of a scheming poisoner. However, the potter refuses to bring in the police, because the would-be-murderer can only be one of two persons: his devoted wife or a live-in friend – who shares Gannet's studio to make hideous, artsy jewelry.
Here's where my favorite part of the story begins. Dr. Oldfield becomes a regular visitant to the Gannet home and strikes up sort of a friendship with the artist, but quivers at the primitive monstrosities the potter molds from hunks of clay and the crude, barbaric jewel-studded ornaments, crafted by the annoying Frederic Bowles, aren't up to the conventional tastes of the medico, either – resulting in one or two delightfully, witty observations and potshots at the expense of the modern art movement at the time.
In one particular chapter, Dr. Oldfield kills off some time by visiting an exhibition of Gannet's work and a pompous art critic is erratically rattling on about how art is not meant to be understood and how verbal language is inefficient in conveying the abstract qualities that are to be felt rather than described. This amusing parody turns into a merciless mockery when the arbiter begins describing the qualities of a decorated jar as the masterpiece of the collection, possessive of the artistic personality of the potter, but it was Oldfield who made the jar during one of his visits to the studio – and Gannet fraudulently passed the object off as part of his own work. Hey, you can't blame a Classicist/Romanticist for snickering at that... or at any of the other jokes!
But there's also a simplistic, but effective, detective plot, which centers around the two modernist artisans – who live as two warring countries under a temporarily suspension of arms and the doctor prevented one of their fights from escalating into a declaration of war with one of them as the first casualty of the ensuing onslaught. It's therefore no surprise when the two men disappear simultaneously and evidence is uncovered that a body was cremated in the pottery kiln, but who of them assumed the role of murderer and who was the victim?
The final quarter of the book, narrated by Jervis, provides the answer as he relates how his associate, Dr. Thorndyke, reconstructs the crime and links it with the pernicious diamond heist a few months earlier and expounds on the importance of the titular stoneware monkey. However, the observant reader won't find a bombshell revelation in this part of the book, but then again, it was evident from the outset that the interest of the plot lay in reconstructing the events rather than identifying the perpetrator – and very few played that game better than Austin Freeman.
In short, if Julian Symons' description is accurate than the taste of dry straw has been grossly underrated.